Dean Barnett

Yesterday our own Matt Lewis of the Townhall Blog (where I contribute, too, you know) delved into a little controversy regarding my favorite candidate, Mitt Romney and some comments he purportedly made about Osama bin Laden. According to the AP:

[Romney] said the country would be safer by only "a small percentage" and would see "a very insignificant increase in safety" if al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was caught because another terrorist would rise to power. "It's not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person," Romney said. Instead, he said he supports a broader strategy to defeat the Islamic jihad movement.

This comments struck such a sour note with National Review’s Byron York that he suggested, “Romney should watch the tape of the planes hitting the towers again.” In fairness to Byron, he did allow for the fact that he hadn’t seen the full text of the interview, and perhaps the AP had missed some context.

Our own Matt Lewis, showing the innate industriousness that sets Townhall contributors apart, contacted the Romney campaign and got the full text of the interview. Surprise, surprise- turns out the AP did miss some context. The exchange between Romney and reporter Liz Sidoti went as follows:

LIZ SIDOTI: "Why haven't we caught bin Laden in your opinion?"

GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY: "I think, I wouldn't want to over-concentrate on Bin Laden. He's one of many, many people who are involved in this global Jihadist effort. He's by no means the only leader. It's a very diverse group – Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Muslim Brotherhood and of course different names throughout the world. It's not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person. It is worth fashioning and executing an effective strategy to defeat global, violent Jihad and I have a plan for doing that."

SIDOTI: "But would the world be safer if bin laden were caught?"

GOVERNOR ROMNEY: "Yes, but by a small percentage increase – a very insignificant increase in safety by virtue of replacing bin Laden with someone else. Zarqawi – we celebrated the killing of Zarqawi, but he was quickly replaced. Global Jihad is not an effort that is being populated by a handful or even a football stadium full of people. It is – it involves millions of people and is going to require a far more comprehensive strategy than a targeted approach for bin laden or a few of his associates."

SIDOTI: "Do you fault the administration for not catching him though? I mean, they've had quite a few years going after him."

GOVERNOR ROMNEY: "There are many things that have not been done perfectly in any conduct of war. In the Second World War, we paratroopered in our troops further than they were supposed to be from the beaches. We landed in places on the beaches that weren't anticipated. Do I fault Eisenhower? No, he won. And I'm nowhere near as consumed with bin Laden as I am concerned about global Jihadist efforts."

There are two stories here. The first is the media’s mischaracterization of Romney’s remarks, a mischaracterization that was eagerly and not inappropriately seized upon by John McCain who lamented Romney’s naïveté. But you know what? The media engaging in such shenanigans, be they the byproduct of a willful distortion or just garden-variety incompetence, is a boring dog-bites-man story. Perhaps I’ve been a pundit too long, but I just can’t work up an appropriate amount of outrage over this.

THE REAL STORY IS THE DIFFERING VIEWS OF DEFENSE AND THE WAR that McCain and Romney offer. Although the AP did mischaracterize Romney’s remarks, it’s still fairly clear that he puts less of an emphasis on catching bin Laden than McCain does. And that’s good.

McCain’s view is part 9/12 and part 9/10. The 9/12 part of it, to a point anyway, is okay. Like Byron York, he’s angry about what happened on 9/11. We all are. And he’s responding to that anger viscerally, suggesting that no resource be spared in tracking down this one man. Unfortunately, we live in a world of scarce resources. If we spare no resource to track down bin Laden, we by definition forego other perhaps more strategically relevant tasks. On 9/12, we were all furious, and we all responded viscerally. My complaint with this ongoing visceral reaction is that the time to react cerebrally has long since arrived.

And then there’s the 9/10 part. Before 9/11 and the Bush administration’s sea-change in policies, terrorism was considered a law enforcement issue. The emphasis on capturing one man specifically to punish him for 9/11, as York’s post implies, is redolent of that misguided philosophy even though it’s well intended.

THE AMAZING THING ABOUT THE AP’S WRITE-UP of its interview with Romney is how it so thoroughly buried the lede. The most interesting thing Romney said was, “Global Jihad is not an effort that is being populated by a handful or even a football stadium full of people. It is – it involves millions of people.” This flies in the face of the wishful conventional wisdom that we’re just dealing with a few outliers who intend us harm. Once again, Romney is proving himself to be smarter than the average bear.

Romney is also dealing with the fact that we’re in a global struggle. While viscerally it would be satisfying to make bin Laden our top priority, strategically such a course would be ludicrous. Doing so would make as much sense as if Pearl Harbor caused us to declare the capture of Yamamoto and Tojo our top priorities while neglecting to consider the fact that we were suddenly at war with hundreds of millions of people.

Romney gets the scope of the problem, and deals with it maturely and thoughtfully. His tack may not be as satisfying as making a “Wanted: Dead or Alive” poster, but hopefully it will be more effective.

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Dean Barnett

Dean Barnett blogs almost daily at He has also been a frequent contributor to the Weekly Standard's online edition, The Daily Standard. He can be reached for comment at

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